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A tale of three parties: Laurie Penny sobers up over Labour

The British left is finally knocking back the Alka-Seltzer of humility and stumbling to its feet.

Manchester, 2008. With the financial edifices of Wall Street and the City of London tumbling like dominoes, the Labour Party faithful have gathered at the annual New Statesman conference reception at to soak away their panic. In the grand, high-ceilinged ballroom of the town hall, the old neoliberal certainties are dissipating like chill vapour: the one question on everyone's lips is whether David Miliband, a man who ideologically and personally resembles the banana-grasping voodoo corpse of Blairism left to rot in a pool of inertia for two years, will make a bid for the leadership and reanimate the only model of electoral success the left has known in the past generation.

Meanwhile, a young cabinet minister with an awkward haircut, who is at this point most famous for not being David Miliband, takes the platform to deliver some calming platitudes. Miliband minor's soothing quips about the humiliations of being a younger brother fall on dull ears. Everyone is more intent on drinking hard -- drinking with the cheery desperation that only the British can muster when the streets are on fire and the bar is free.

Fast forward to Brighton, 2009. In the dying days of the last Labour administration, the great and good of the British left have once more gathered at the New Statesman party to drown their sorrows. The recession has hit hard, and nobody now believes that Labour will win the next election; privately, there are many who suspect that it might not deserve to win. The corporate lounge at the soulless seafront hotel gradually fills with bewildered delegates, drifting through the glass doors in ones and twos with the shellshocked expressions of war refugees. The room is too bright, full of static and suspicion; knots of gossip and weary recrimination cluster in the corners of the party. It's like the disco at the end of the world.

The speaker this year is David Miliband, but unfortunately, just as he is ushered onto the stage, somebody brings out the booze. The party faithful charge across the crackling carpet towards the bar like victims of a natural disaster mobbing a Red Cross van, only with substantially less dignity. Nobody listens to Miliband Major, and why would they? The jaws of the credit crunch are snapping shut, and Torygeddon is approaching: not even Blairism can save us now.

Fast forward to this weekend: it's the 2010 Labour Party conference, and we're back in at the same party, in the same lofty setting as 2008 -- the decadent Victorian granite of Manchester Town Hall. And this time, everybody is waiting for Ed Miliband. The shy junior cabinet minister from 2008 has just been anointed leader of the Labour Party in a nail-biting victory over his elder brother, the heir apparent, we have watched his strange rubbery face on the front pages and ubiquitous television screens for 24 hours, and now we are waiting anxiously for Ed like schoolgirls waiting for their prom date to arrive.

When he finally does arrive, flanked by beaming young volunteers who have just been elevated to the status of political flunkies, a spontaneous cheer erupts: a triumphant, rather irreverent cheer, peppered with whoops and wolf-whistles. Ed Miliband is manifestly not the revivified corpse of Blairism -- instead, even with the heady flush of new leadership, he still calls to mind the dorky, swotty kid at the back of the class to whom, for some indefinable reason, nobody has paid much attention. Until now.

Ed takes the stage and tells us, with a rather sad smile and not a hint of swagger, that he wants the Labour Party to change. He wants the Labour Party to show humility over its past mistakes, and to "question old truths". He wants the Labour party to be the "natural home" for the next generation of activists, in part because it is young volunteers who have made his campaign such a success. He wants the party to unite, to abandon factionalism, and most of all -- more than anything -- he wants "change". Unlike the smooth, polished Anglo-American political salesmen of the post-crash era, you suspect that he actually means it.

It is perhaps a testament to how comfortable the Labour Party has become with hierarchy and privilege that the sudden leadership of Ed Miliband -- who is, after all, not an outsider but a son of leafy North London from a distinguished Labour lineage, whose only claim to political insurgency is that he is not the elder brother -- should have so shaken the party faithful. In a truly radical party, this would not have been so stunning a change of direction, but New Labour has not been truly radical for many years.

Expectations were low, and this is enough; it's enough to tremble the foundations of the British left and disturb its stagnant, hierarchial customs, so reliant on anointed heirs and settled successions of power. The gathering at the New Statesman party is suffused with panicked excitement. The delegates are behaving like a group of normally compliant school pupils in an empty classroom, when someone unexpected -- say, the dorky kid at the back of the class -- has just got up from his place and sat down in the teacher's chair. It's a scandalous, it's thrilling, it's surely against the rules!

The overwhelming impression is that anything could happen, and the room bubbles with breezy expectation and just a suggestion of naughtiness. Personal and political seductions are attempted; old friendships and alliances are rekindled. Delegates flirt, make eyes at one another and have meaningful discussions about the living wage and progressive taxation over glasses of orange juice, the boozing less frantic than in previous years.

It's been a long hangover, but this morning, the British left is finally knocking back the Alka-Seltzer of humility and stumbling to its feet. After all, there's work to be done.

 

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.